Friday, October 21, 2011

The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess'

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in Porgy and Bess.

I think what I'll remember most about the recent A.R.T. production of The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess' (henceforth just Porgy and Bess, btw) was the show that surrounded the show. The production itself proved pretty forgettable, aside from its vocals (from the great Audra McDonald, of course, but also from Philip Boykin, Bryonha Marie Parham, and Natasha Yvette Williams). Diane Paulus's direction was competent but a bit pedestrian, the choreography ditto, and the set design was weirdly grandiose - in fact it looked like something from Bayreuth circa 1976, amusingly enough.  Meanwhile Suzan-Lori Parks' controversial adaptation was streamlined, but clumsily so, and was thematically hamstrung by its political correctness.  And while the singers sounded pretty good (even though they were miked), the orchestra most definitely did not - its natural timbres were all but drowned out by amplification in the modernist barn that is the Loeb.

So the production was at best mediocre.  Yet local reviewers generally fell over themselves in their praise, because (hallelujah), it wasn't outright terrible, and because - of course - it had been designed to align with, and amplify, a middlebrow progressive politics that all our theatre critics feel they must kow-tow to.  (Tellingly, when I saw it, virtually everyone in the audience, aside from a school group, was a crunchy 70-year-old white Cantabridgian.)

The trouble with this kind of obeisance, however, crops up whenever a work's artistic content comes into conflict with the prejudices of its reformers.  For the "reform" of Porgy was bluntly posited as a chief motivator behind its revival; we were often told (in the New York Times, and elsewhere) by director Diane Paulus and her team of "excavators" that the opera traded in stereotypes that were now offensive.  When this proved controversial to those who love the original work (including Stephen Sondheim), and understand its place in history as a trail-blazing anti-racist piece of theatre, Paulus & Co. began an elaborate dance of back-tracking.  No, the show wasn't racist, no, not really, there were just "failures of understanding" in it, Suzan-Lori Parks babbled.  There were things, Paulus insisted, that a Broadway audience just would no longer tolerate!  NOT "racist" things, just "things!"

You get the idea. Basically, Porgy and Bess was racist, only it wasn't really, only it was in a way, unintentionally, only it kind of wasn't, not actually.

What this back-and-forth obscured, of course, was a simple discomfort with the abjection of the opera's characters. Porgy is a cripple, who gets around in a cart drawn by a goat (a metaphor for lost potency that is almost too intense in its pathos).  Meanwhile Bess is a "fallen woman" fighting a drug habit, who submits pathetically to the abuses of her lover, Crown.  To Paulus & Co., this was all offensive; they wanted to "empower" characters whose powerlessness was central to their being.  So Porgy got canes instead of a cart, and staggered off on his own two feet at the play's finale.  Bess was restyled even more radically - she threw away her "happy dust" in disgust, and seemed to "choose," rather than succumb to, her sexual abuse.

The trouble is, these decisions played hacky-sack with the themes, emotional trajectory, and even tragic dimension of the opera.  They turned a great, disturbing work of art into a "teaching moment" about, well, something, but I've no idea what; this Porgy and Bess was completely at odds with itself.  Because if the abjection of the characters was what offended, then why make them only a little less abject?  What was the artistic point of that?  And if you were going to really transform Dubose and Dorothy Heyward's Bess (note the Heyward name was not included in the project's marquee title), into an angry, totally-together Power Grrl, then how could you also hope to hang onto the Heyward plot, which depends completely on Bess's weakness?  To make good on such a re-conception, you'd  have to thoroughly rewrite the second half of the opera - something Suzan-Lori Parks simply didn't do.

What we were left with, then, was an oddity: an opera "reformed" of a racism it didn't "really have," by means of interventions which rendered it as crippled thematically as its lead character was physically.

But let's be honest - in the view of the revival's admirers, the opera had to be racist, because without a veneer of reform, Paulus's direction generally looks denuded of any significance (and Suzan-Lori Parks' playwriting doesn't fare much better).  I know, I know - Diane Paulus knows how to engineer an "event" (the publicity prior to Porgy was her real masterpiece), and thus she gets not only buzz, but butts in seats - the production quickly sold out at the A.R.T.  But once my butt is in that seat, I can't help but notice that as a director Diane Paulus is . . . well, she's okay, but no great shakes.  I keep trying to think of something particular to say about her style or sense of interpretation - but honestly, not much comes to mind.  She is dutiful; she attends to details; she has a good sense of pace.  (She was obviously once a Harvard student.)  She directs the traffic of her stage fairly well, and every now and then has a striking visual idea.  This only puts her, however, in the solid middle of the lowest tier of national-level directors.  She has no real interpretive profile; beneath her publicity-driven "brand" of pop-political activism, there is something close to an artistic void.

And please, don't write in to tell me I feel this way because she's a woman.  Would everyone stop making that kind of excuse for her?  I feel this way because I see a lot of great direction.  And even if Diane Paulus suddenly grew testicles she wouldn't be a patch on the ass of a director like, say, Mary Zimmerman.  Even locally, we have Melia Bensussen, who's clearly smarter and more imaginative than Paulus.  We have plenty of better female directors than Diane Paulus; her career is held in place by her politics, her connections, and the success of Hair.  That's it.  (And honestly, how interesting is Hair?  Seriously, people, catch a grip.)

What made this production even weirder was that basically all its racial stereotypes were still firmly in place (at left), just rendered in a warmly sappy, aw-shucks! idiom that made Cabin in the Sky look sophisticated; and it certainly still sported the unspoken frame of deracinated white folks watching the antics of earthy, free-spirited "Negroes."  Sassy, oversized mamas still clucked after randy, sexist bucks, just as I remembered from earlier productions of Porgy and Bess - and as I remember from The Color Purple, by the way, and all of Tyler Perry's movies, too.  Yeah, I know, Parks deleted the vulture scene, and Porgy's fear that a corpse might bleed afresh in the morgue, because these tropes were seen (by her) as too "superstitious."  Which makes no sense to me whatsoever, by the way.  Superstition is a mainstay of grand opera, and of Shakespeare, too.  Nobody ever thought any less of an opera character because he or she was superstitious.  (And oddly, one left this production more convinced than ever that Porgy and Bess is indeed an opera, not a musical - the lurches from recitative into dialogue were always abrupt and disconcerting.)

So if affectionate, but condescending, stereotype rattles your political cage, then I can't see how you wouldn't be staggered by this Porgy and Bess.  As for me, I put this kind of thing in the same category as O'Neill's parody of Irish poverty in Moon for the Misbegotten - I'm Irish, but I'm not offended.  Art may be rooted in stereotype, for all we know, and at any rate, Tobacco Road ain't so far from Catfish Row; there's plenty of Caucasian abjection out there, too.

I am offended, however, by productions that pretend they have conjured drama where instead they've only put up After-school Special talking points. (Like "Nice girls can be sluts, but they don't do drugs!") And as I've noted, this Porgy and Bess made no dramatic sense whatsoever.  The whole point of the opera is the fragility of its lovers' relationship, how their mutual frailty both allows their romance to blossom (Bess has always been overwhelmed by more powerful men), and also threatens to destroy it.  Its theme is the vexed condition of human weakness, and I'll be honest - the dilemma of these heroes always makes me cry; they are titanic, two of the truly tragic heroes of the twentieth-century theatre.

So rather obviously, turning them into avatars of empowerment pretty much drains them of their actual artistic power.  Plus it inevitably led this production into odd non-sequiturs.  Audra McDonald sang like an angel, it's true, but she only connected with Norm Lewis' Porgy musically - because the restyled script obviated the tender basis of their relationship.  Likewise, when attacked by Crown in the second act, she mysteriously strode off to her own rape with an irritated, "Come on, let's get it over with!" authority.  Then, once Porgy had been detained by police, she was seduced by Sportin' Life to abandon her lover because - well, because WHAT?  In the original version, of course, the spectre of "happy dust" reclaiming her desperate soul arises, and Porgy's journey to New York becomes one of redemption.  Here, however, Bess spurned Sportin' Life's offers of cocaine . . . and yet decided to run off with him anyway.  And how many drug-free Power Grrls would decide to run off with a pusher?  My guess is not many.  Clearly this was one moment that required a little extra inspiration from Suzan-Lori Parks, but so far she has come up with zip.

But by the end of the production I had long since understood that this was no longer a work of drama, music, or opera, at all, but merely a vehicle for an obviously muddled and pretentious politics.  Not even a politics, actually - just an etiquette.  And let's not forget it's a financial vehicle, too - a possible gold mine, I'd guess, for Paulus and the Gershwin estate.  Paulus by now has made a career from eking a profit out of white guilt - she's like some New Age "P.C." Barnum.  Which wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, if she weren't perverting the purpose of her non-profit theatre in the process.  By now, of course, the A.R.T.'s second stage is a lost cause; Paulus's personal moneymaker, The Donkey Show, has run there for over two years, and what productions the space offers in addition must inevitably be styled around its requirements.  Thus a space that used to house truly challenging and original new work is programmed with rock "operas" or the likes of Cabaret and The Rocky Horror Show.  And the main stage Paulus clearly views as a launching pad for her own Broadway projects, like Porgy, which was obviously streamlined for purely commercial purposes.  That's right - the goal of this particular "nonprofit" theatre has become the commercialization of art into more politically-palatable pop entertainment.  It's doing precisely the opposite of what it was founded to do.   But then as several of the smarter critics have already pointed out, P.C. pop entertainment is what the PBS and NPR crowd now considers "art."   So why, I sometimes wonder, do I even mourn the mauling of a great work like Porgy and Bess?  Diane Paulus is probably right; there's no audience left to appreciate it anyway.


  1. Oh hell, the ART wasn't about to hire me anyway...

    I think what I'll remember the most about P&B (not to be confused with the popular sandwich) was, like you said, the show behind the show. The articles in the Times, and the fawning reactions from the local press practically reprinting them word-for-word. On stage, I thought it was a pretty middle of the road production: some nice singing (I'd praise Audra McDonald here, but what more is there to say??!!!) and good performances all around from an excellent cast including David Alan Grier, Joshua Henry, Phillip Boykin and Natasha Yvette Williams. With a weird, non-evocative set that looked like... well, what did it look like? An empty warehouse with some holes in the walls, maybe? (Rumor has it that the set is getting a makeover for NYC) And one cool moment when the whole thing tipped sideways during the storm.

    I'd never seen P&B before going, and wasn't that familiar with the score, so I didn't have much to compare it to. I didn't find a lot to remember from this production and thought some of the reaction to the changes was a bit overblown - I think Alex Ross put it best in his article about the show, where he pointed out that P&B is a show that really should be in the Public Domain at this point, and if it was, that the argument would really be about whether or not the changes worked in the production, and less about the creator's intent. And here I'd argue that they didn't really work and that I'm very glad they didn't paste on a happy, more hopeful ending. The question is now, how will the show play in NYC? Stay tuned to find out!!! In any case, I'd far rather see Candide get a run there instead.

  2. Sorry, but I'm not really a fan of Alex Ross, and I thought that particular column offered up his brand of millennial apologism at its discombobulated worst. Do we really want MORE misguided, money-driven "re-interpretations" of Porgy and Bess? Admittedly, copyright afforded little protection to the work this time around - the Gershwin estate itself engineered this crass milking of its cash cow. But it still may offer other works some protection from the likes of Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks. In general, I've begun to feel we need more copyright protection, not less. And we need less "appropriation," less "quotation," less "refs" in general. Anything that nudges the current generation of artists onto its own two feet is a good thing, in my mind.

  3. Wicked review. As someone who was not fully versed with the original, I was extremely confused on how this show was ever popular. The story made little sense and I left the theatre extremely annoyed. When I found out it was a 'remake' from the original and that many items were massaged, it made more sense. Your article crystallized everything for me. Amazing write up. A++